The Apostles' Response to Persecution

VATICAN, April 18, 2012 -- The following catechesis on the response to persecutions of Christians was delivered by Pope Benedict XVI at his Wednesday audience.

Dear brothers and sisters,

After the great feasts we return to the catechesis on prayer. In the audience before Holy Week we reflected on the figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary, present in the midst of the apostles when they were awaiting the descent of the Holy Spirit. An atmosphere of prayer accompanied the Church’s first steps. Pentecost is not an isolated episode since the presence and action of the Holy Spirit constantly guide and animate the path of the Christian community. In the Acts of the Apostles, in fact, St. Luke, besides narrating the great effusion of the Spirit in the cenacle 50 days after Easter (cf. Acts 2:1-13), refers to other great irruptions of the Holy Spirit which return in the Church’s history. And today I would like to reflect on that which has been called the “little Pentecost” that occurred at the culmination of a difficult period in the life of the nascent Church.

The Acts of the Apostles tell how after the healing of a paralytic at the Temple in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 3:1-10), Peter and John were arrested (cf. 4:1) because they announced Jesus’ resurrection to the whole people (cf. Acts 3:11-26). After a summary trial, they were freed, they went to their brothers and recounted what they suffered because of their witness to the risen Jesus. At that time, says St. Luke, “all together lifted their voice to God” (Acts 4:24). Here St. Luke reports the longest of the Church’s prayers that we find in the New Testament, at the end of which, as we have heard, “the place where they were gathered shook, and they were all filled with the holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31).

Before considering this beautiful prayer, let us note an important basic attitude: in the face of danger, difficulty, threats, the first Christian community does not try to conduct an analysis about how to react or seek strategies about how to defend itself, about what measures to adopt, but in the face of trial, they pray, they get in touch with God. And what characteristic does this prayer have? It is a single and concordant prayer of the whole community that, because of Jesus, confronts a situation of persecution. In the original Greek St. Luke uses the term “homothumadon” – “all together,” “in agreement” – a term that appears in other parts of the Acts of the Apostles to underscore this persevering and unanimous prayer (cf. Acts 1:14; 2:46). This concord is a fundamental element of the first community and it must always be fundamental for the Church. So it is not only the prayer of Peter and John, who found themselves in danger; it is the prayer of the whole community, because what the two apostles experience does not only touch them but the whole Church. In the face of persecutions endured for Jesus’ sake not only is the community not frightened and divided but is deeply united in prayer, as a single person, calling on the Lord. This I would say is the first wonder that occurs when the believers are tested because of their faith: their unity is strengthened rather than compromised because it is supported by an indestructible prayer. The Church must not fear the persecutions that it will undergo in its history but trust always, as Jesus did at Gethsemane in the presence, help and power of God, invoked in prayer.

Let us take a further step: what does the Christian community ask of God in this moment of trial? It does not ask for its life to be protected during persecution nor that the Lord harm those who imprisoned Peter and John; it only asks that it be granted to “proclaim in all boldness” the Word of God (cf. Acts 4:29), that is, it asks that it not lose the courage of faith, the courage to proclaim the faith. First, however, it tries to understand more deeply what has happened, it tries to interpret the events in the light of faith and it does this precisely through God’s Word, which permits us to decipher the world’s reality.

In offering up its prayers to the Lord, the community begins by recalling and invoking the greatness and immensity of God: “Sovereign Lord, maker of heaven and earth and the sea and all that is in them” (Acts 4:24). It is the invocation of the Creator: we know that everything comes from him, that everything is in his hands. This is the knowledge that gives the community certainty and courage: everything comes from him, everything is in his hands. It then acknowledges how God has acted in history – so it begins with creation and then continues through history – how he has been near to his people, showing himself to be a God who cares for man, who has not retreated, who does not abandon man, his creature; and here Psalm 2 is explicitly cited, in the light of which the difficult situation that the Church is currently experiencing is interpreted. Psalm 2 celebrates the enthronement of the king of Judah, but prophetically refers to the coming of the Messiah, against whom nothing can stir up rebellion, persecution, the tyranny of men “Why did the Gentiles rage and the peoples entertain folly? The kings of the earth took their stand and the princes gathered together against the Lord and against his Christ” (Acts 4:25). The Psalm about the Messiah already says this prophetically, and throughout history this rebellion of the powerful against the power of God is characteristic. Just reading Holy Writ, which is the Word of God, the community can say to God in its prayer: Indeed they gathered in this city against your holy servant Jesus whom you anointed, Herod and Pontius Pilate, together with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel to do what your hand and your will had long ago planned to take place” (Acts 4:27). What had happened was read in the light of Christ, who is the key for understanding persecution too; the cross, which is always the key to the resurrection. The opposition to Jesus, his passion and death, are reread through Psalm 2, as the realization of God’s plan for the world’s salvation. And here we also find the meaning of the experience of persecution through which the first Christian community is living; this first community is not a mere association but a community that lives in Christ; thus, what it experiences is part of God’s design. Just as it happened to Jesus, the first disciples too encounter opposition, incomprehension, persecution. In prayer, meditation on Sacred Scripture in the light of the mystery of Christ is an aid to interpreting the reality present in the history of salvation that God realizes in the world, always in his own way.

Precisely because of this the request that the first Christian community in Jerusalem formulates in its prayer to God does not ask to be defended, to be saved from trial, from suffering, it is not a prayer for success, but only to proclaim with “parresia,” that is, with boldness, with freedom, with courage, the Word of God (cf. Acts 4:29).

The community then adds that this proclamation be accompanied by the hand of God, that healings, signs, wonders might occur (cf. Acts 4:30), that is, that God’s goodness be visible, as a power that transforms reality, that changes hearts, minds and men’s lives and brings the radical newness of the Gospel.

At the end of the prayer, St. Luke observes, “the place where they were gathered trembled and all were filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaimed the Word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). The place trembled, that is, the faith has the power to transform the world. The same Spirit that spoke in Psalm 2 in the Church’s prayer, breaks forth in the house where the disciples are and fills the heart of everyone who has called on the Lord. This is the fruit of the united prayer that the Christian community lifts up to God: the effusion of the Spirit, gift of the Risen One, that supports and guides the free and courageous proclamation of the Word of God, who drives the Lord’s disciples to leave the house without fear to bring the good news to the ends of the earth.

We too, dear brothers and sisters, must know how to bring the events of our daily lives into our prayer, to find their deeper meaning. And like the first Christian community, we too, letting ourselves be enlightened by God’s Word through meditation on Holy Scripture, can learn to see that God is present in our lives, present even and precisely in difficult moments, and that everything – even things that are incomprehensible – is part of the superior design of love in which the final victory over evil, over sin and over death is truly that of goodness, of grace, of life, of God.

As with the first Christian community, prayer helps us to interpret personal and collective history according to the right and faithful perspective, that of God. And we too want to renew the request for the gift of the Holy Spirit, that warms the heart and illumines the mind, to see how the Lord realizes what we plead for according to his will of love and not according to our ideas. Guided by the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ, we will be able to face every situation of life with serenity, courage and joy and boast with St. Paul “in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces patience, patience proved virtue and proved virtue hope”: that hope that “does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been bestowed upon us” (Romans 5:3-5).

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic, for Zenit]

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Here is the passage from scripture on which the above catechesis was based.

FROM THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES (3:1-11; 4:1-31)

Now Peter and John were going up to the temple area for the three o'clock hour of prayer. And a man crippled from birth was carried and placed at the gate of the temple called "the Beautiful Gate" every day to beg for alms from the people who entered the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked for alms.

But Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, "Look at us."
He paid attention to them, expecting to receive something from them. Peter said, "I have neither silver nor gold, but what I do have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, (rise and) walk." Then Peter took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles grew strong. He leaped up, stood, and walked around, and went into the temple with them, walking and jumping and praising God.

When all the people saw him walking and praising God, they recognized him as the one who used to sit begging at the Beautiful Gate of the temple, and they were filled with amazement and astonishment at what had happened to him. As he clung to Peter and John, all the people hurried in amazement toward them in the portico called "Solomon's Portico." [...]

While they were still speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple guard, and the Sadducees 1 confronted them, disturbed that they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. They laid hands on them and put them in custody until the next day, since it was already evening. But many of those who heard the word came to believe and (the) number of men grew to (about) five thousand.

On the next day, their leaders, elders, and scribes were assembled in Jerusalem,
with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly class. They brought them into their presence and questioned them, "By what power or by what name have you done this?"

Then Peter, filled with the holy Spirit, answered them, "Leaders of the people and elders: If we are being examined today about a good deed done to a cripple, namely, by what means he was saved, then all of you and all the people of Israel should know that it was in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarean whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead; in his name this man stands before you healed. He is

'the stone rejected by you, the builders,
which has become the cornerstone.'

There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved."

 Observing the boldness of Peter and John and perceiving them to be uneducated, ordinary men, they were amazed, and they recognized them as the companions of Jesus. Then when they saw the man who had been cured standing there with them, they could say nothing in reply.

So they ordered them to leave the Sanhedrin, and conferred with one another, saying, "What are we to do with these men? Everyone living in Jerusalem knows that a remarkable sign was done through them, and we cannot deny it. But so that it may not be spread any further among the people, let us give them a stern warning never again to speak to anyone in this name." So they called them back and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.

Peter and John, however, said to them in reply, "Whether it is right in the sight of God for us to obey you rather than God, you be the judges. It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard."

After threatening them further, they released them, finding no way to punish them, on account of the people who were all praising God for what had happened. For the man on whom this sign of healing had been done was over forty years old.

After their release they went back to their own people and reported what the chief priests and elders had told them.

And when they heard it, they raised their voices to God with one accord and said, "Sovereign Lord, maker of heaven and earth and the sea and all that is in them, you said by the holy Spirit through the mouth of our father David, your servant:

'Why did the Gentiles rage
and the peoples entertain folly?
The kings of the earth took their stand
and the princes gathered together
against the Lord and against his anointed.'

Indeed they gathered in this city against your holy servant Jesus whom you anointed, Herod and Pontius Pilate, together with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do what your hand and (your) will had long ago planned to take place.

And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and enable your servants to speak your word with all boldness, as you stretch forth (your) hand to heal, and signs and wonders are done through the name of your holy servant Jesus."

As they prayed, the place where they were gathered shook, and they were all filled with the holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.



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